One of the more popular legends of colonial America was that of Prince Madoc of Wales. Madoc sailed west from Wales in 1170, perhaps becoming one of the first Europeans to reach the Americas. The story goes that the death Madoc’s father, Prince Owen Gwynedd of Wales, triggered internecine strife among his successors. Desiring no part in the conflict, Madoc sailed west across the ocean with a small fleet of ships. Some time later he returned to Wales, telling of an unknown country, pleasant and fertile. Convincing some of his countrymen to accompany him, he set sail again and never returned.
The story does not end here, however. With the colonization of the Americas, the legend of Madoc was renewed. It became common belief among the early settlers that Madoc’s explorers had intermarried with local Indian tribes. Their descendants were said to still reside somewhere in the country. Stories emerged among the colonists detailing encounters with the Welsh-speaking descendants of Madoc. According to historian Reuben T. Durrett, the Madoc tale was especially popular among the early settlers of Kentucky and was often told on long winter nights.
The Falls of the Ohio area became especially connected with the Madoc mythology. A story related to early settlers by local Indians meshed with the Madoc legend. A tribe of “White Indians,” remarkable for their light hair and blue eyes, was said to have resided in the falls area at one time. However, hostilities broke out between the “White Indians” and another neighboring Indian group. A final battle between the two tribes occurred on Sand Island at the Falls of the Ohio where the “White Indians” were massacred. Contemporaries to this account soon connected the story of this “White Indian” tribe with the Madoc legend, believing they had found the descendants of the Welsh voyagers.
Further discoveries seemed to confirm this conclusion. A large burial ground was found on the North side of the Ohio, opposite the Falls, with the haphazard arrangement of the skeletons indicating they may have been the remains of the “White Indians” who were massacred. Earthen fortifications discovered at Devil’s Backbone were also believed to be the work of the “Welsh Indians”. Most intriguingly, an account circulated of six skeletons found near Jeffersonville, Indiana in 1799. Each skeleton was said to have been encased in a brass breast plate emblazoned with the Welsh coat of arms. The present-day location of this armor is unknown, if indeed, it ever existed at all.
I find that the Madoc story raises a number of intriguing questions. Why did the early settlers believe the Madoc legend? Why was it so popular?
Perhaps the story struck a chord with a group of people who were inhabiting a new country—a people who might have delighted in finding something familiar in a strange place. Perhaps the story also served as an explanation for evidence of advanced civilization among the Indian societies of the Americas—evidence that did not mesh with the prevailing view of the Indian as barbaric and uncivilized.
Perhaps most importantly, the Madoc legend was simply a good story. Stories were undoubtedly one of the main forms of entertainment at the time. The Madoc legend is a compelling story with an element of mystery. Like the tale of the lost colony of Roanoke, the ending is unknown. One cannot help but imagine what might have happened to Madoc and those who sailed with him.